Let’s Talk About That: Teacher Retention

By Cindy Van Buren, Assistant Dean for Professional Partnerships, UofSC College of Education

This roundtable synthesis highlights insights of four SC-TEACHER guest bloggers who have contributed to our conversation of the past few months regarding the challenge of keeping teachers in SC classrooms – as well as sharing some successes. I hope you’ll find this “retention round up” of interest. To participate in the #teacherretention conversation, please join our Twitter chat on Tuesday, March 24 at 4 p.m. EST. We’re co-hosting with our friends and partner, CTQ (Center for Teaching Quality).

Punch line first: Retention is paramount to the success of education

Throughout my 32-year career as an educator in the great state of South Carolina, I spent much of my time and energy focusing on recruitment into the teaching profession and the high quality preparation of teachers. I have worked with Teacher Cadet college partnerships at three of the state’s colleges and universities and used it as a recruiting tool to get people interested in becoming teachers. I have also been involved in teacher preparation at those same three institutions and have been proud of the transformative changes teacher educators have made in how we prepare teachers for our classrooms. Don’t misunderstand me: both recruitment and preparation are critical to addressing the teacher shortage. However, in the past five years, I have developed the strong guiding belief that unless we also focus on teacher retention, recruitment and preparation do not do nearly enough to ensure that each child has an effective teacher. This realization has led me to now focus most of my efforts on teacher retention. So, let’s talk about why teachers leave classrooms in this state and how we can retain them.

Compensation is often cited as a driving influence

I bring up compensation first, but it is really the least important. This is not to say that teachers don’t need and deserve the raise that is currently being proposed in the South Carolina legislature – they do. However, as Melanie Barton, senior education advisor to the Governor, pointed out in her blog, “Policymakers concede that increased pay is necessary, but insufficient to address the shortage.” In his blog The House is on Fire, Patrick Kelly reminds us that while compensation matters, it is rarely the first reason given by a teacher for leaving the profession. Attributing the large numbers of teachers leaving the profession to compensation alone fails to attend to what teachers say and what research supports. After all, teachers generally know what to expect in terms of salary very early on in their preparation; it’s not like the salary schedules for educators are in some black box until you sign on to teach. They are posted online for all to see.

Lack of respect for the profession

This is a difficult issue to overcome in our quest to stamp down the teacher shortage crisis. Currently and for the first time since Gallup began polling Americans about their attitudes toward teaching, fewer than half of the respondents (46%) would like to see their children become teachers. Imagine serving in a profession where salaries are low and public perception of the job you do each day may even be lower. If a teacher already lacks confidence and resiliency, one can see how it might be easy to leave the profession behind. We must do more to elevate the profession so that our current K-12 students see both the value of professional educators and career trajectories that illuminate education as a viable path.

Support is a key to success

While improving both teacher compensation and public perception of the profession are important, we have come to realize that teacher support, in all forms, is what is needed to keep teachers in the classroom. One promising practice deserves an extra mention. In the 2018-19 school year, the Carolina Teacher Induction Program (CarolinaTIP) had 100% of their participating teachers remain in classrooms, 100%. This is the same year that 36% of all teachers who left South Carolina classrooms had five or fewer years of experience and 13% had only one year or less. With 6,650 teachers leaving the profession in SC in 2018-2019, the math indicates that 864 teachers left the classroom with one year of experience or less. Imagine how many of those teachers could be retained if all teachers had the kind of support offered by CarolinaTIP during the early years of their careers! Madalyn Hazlett from Dreher High shared her first-hand experience as a teacher in the CarolinaTIP program. You can read more about her story here, but one thing she said resonated with me: “My TIP colleagues have different versions of this story, all leading to the same positive result: returning to the classroom in year two more prepared and more confident.” That kind of internal confidence is definitely possible with external influence and intentional, personalized support.

Jon Pedersen, Dean of the College of Education at UofSC shared in his blog, “I can think of no other profession that allows graduates to be placed in the workforce without continuing long-term support and mentoring.” I had to take a minute to really digest that statement.  We share the experience and view that teacher support should not stop after year one, should not be the sole responsibility of the hiring district, and that the support given must be intensive.

In her compelling blog on novice teacher induction, CarolinaTIP Director Nicole Skeen points out that “teachers require support that meets the evolving professional needs of the novice educator” and “teachers deserve support that is teacher-centered.” School districts across the state are working diligently to provide induction support services to their teachers and through all of their dedication and efforts, it is still not enough to retain enough teachers. So, while additional funding for teacher compensation is important, it is critical that we dedicate resources that have demonstrated effects on teacher retention, particularly in the first three years in the classroom.

Some Progress in 2019-2020

There is some good news about the teacher retention issue. Although 6,650 teachers left their positions during or at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, this represents a 9% decrease compared to the number of teachers overall who left during or at the end of 2017-2018. The percentage of newly-hired teachers who are recent graduates of an in-state educator preparation program remained steady at 23%, and the number of newly-certified teachers is up by 79 graduates from the previous year. This represents the first annual increase since 2014-2015 (CERRA Supply and Demand Report, December 11, 2019).  But it is clear that we have to retain those new teachers through support in order for the good news to have an impact in teaching and learning.

As we look toward our Twitter Chat about #teacherretention, here are a handful of questions I hope you’ll help us think through:

  1. How do we garner the resources to support new teachers through the induction years to unlock their full promise and potential in the classroom?
  2. What are the long-term effects on student learning when so many teachers leave the classroom in the first five years?
  3. Where are the impacts most directly felt from challenges related to teacher retention?
  4. How might we more deeply drill down into why teachers really leave the profession?
  5. Who are our most powerful allies for teacher retention in South Carolina?

I look forward to your adding questions to this list as well as providing some answers!

Over the last several years of my career in South Carolina’s education system, one charge has become increasingly obvious: we all have a role to play in ensuring our state is providing the best education to its children. My career experience combined with recent work as Co-Director for SC-TEACHER has shown me that support – from all directions – is essential to retaining teachers in South Carolina. Let’s continue to talk about teacher retention.

Join us on March, 24 at 4 p.m. EST to contribute to the SC-TEACHER #teacherretention twitter chat.